SSA, AFGE still at negotiating impasse

Tuesday - 11/8/2011, 5:08pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Nearly two years of negotiating has led to a stalemate between the Social Security Administration and its largest union, the American Federation of Government Employees. With 40 contract articles unresolved, the union has sought help from federal arbitrators.

"We think that it's pointless to continue on the path that we're on. We're far apart. We're not getting the job done at reaching a final agreement. We need help," said AFGE chief negotiator Witold Skwierczynski.

"All the big stuff" is up in the air, he said, including employee performance evaluations, awards, transit subsidies and grievance procedures. Federal unions do not bargain for pay or benefits.

AFGE represents 50,000 social security employees, many of whom work in customer service.

Due to the lack of progress over the last two years, the union has asked the Federal Service Impasses Panel to take the case.

In response to an interview request, the Social Security Administration sent an email outlining its attempts to resolve issues with AFGE.

The parties have been working with a mediator, said Kia Green, an agency spokesperson.

Green said SSA and AFGE agreed to 12 contract points and continue to exchange ideas around 30 others.

AFGE also has since proposed 10 new ones.

"AFGE unilaterally elected to discontinue the mediation process and request the assistance of the Federal Service Impasses Panel," she said.

The panel has told the parties it would decide soon whether to take jurisdiction of the case. In light of the announcement, Green said, the agency and AFGE agreed to cancel their scheduled November bargaining session.

Two years is an unusually long time to negotiate a federal union contract, experts and observers say.

"I don't even recall one that's gone a year," said International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers president Greg Junemann, who has been involved in federal unions for 25 years. IFPTE represents 1,700 administrative law judges at the agency.

Since federal unions cannot strike, SSA employees represented by AFGE have been working under expired contract provisions.

If the panel agrees to take the case, it could do whatever it deems necessary to resolve the dispute, including imposing contract terms that please neither party, experts say.

"The panel can say I don't like either proposal and here's what the contract will look like,'" said Bob Tobias, director of key leadership programs at American University and a former president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "The panel tries to create uncertainty to convince parties that they ought to reach agreement rather than relying on the panel to direct the final contract."

The panel has not said whether it would help resolve this dispute. Its seven members—all political appointees—meet next week.

The protracted dispute mars the Obama administration's otherwise productive attempts to collaborate formally with federal unions, said Junemann, who sits on the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, which President Obama created by executive order. He characterized the relationship between Social Security and its unions as "old-style, lock horns because they're trying to put us out of business."

But other employee groups say they have worked cooperatively with the agency.

"I think we have a great relationship with the Social Security Administration. They've always been willing to meet with us when we ask," said Jessica Klement, director of government relations for the Federal Managers Association, which has consultation rights, but cannot bargain like a union.

Employees represented by AFGE are working under the expired provisions and the uncertainty is hurting morale, said Junemann.

"The employer is viewed as uncaring. The union is viewed as ineffective. The union and management then blame each other and the employee feels very, very disheartened, disillusioned and bitter," he said. "And then when they finally get a contract, it's like, ‘Well, it's about time.'"

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